The Institute of Medicine committee examining front-of-pack symbols for use on American foods and beverages began its second phase of work last week with a public workshop to review research on symbol formats. The committee heard presentations from the Food and Drug Administration, the Grocery Manufacturers' Association and the International Food Information Council, among others, and also heard comments from the public.
FDA staff presented the results of consumer research conducted earlier this year to evaluate consumer understanding and use of front-of-pack symbols. Nutrient-specific symbols, including a version of the traffic light symbol where a product's nutrient content is rated with a red, yellow or green dot, were identified as the most trustworthy and useful to consumers.
"According to FDA's research, however, front-of-pack symbols only change consumers' food selections when the consumers are motivated to make healthy food choices and when the decision between two products is difficult," said Michelle Matto, IDFA consultant on nutrition and labeling, who attended the meeting. "No symbol increased consumer motivation to select healthier products."
GMA and IFIC staff members presented information on research conducted by IFIC regarding GMA's recently announced front-of-pack labeling system. Three variations of the symbol were tested: calorie declaration only, declaration of nutrients to limit only and declaration of both nutrients to limit and nutrients to encourage.
Positive Nutrition Information No Hindrance, Research Shows
The research showed that displaying the positive nutrition information did not interfere with the consumers' identification of the levels of negative nutrients. When prompted about the reasons for selecting one food over another, consumers identified lower levels of nutrients to avoid as the rationale for their choice. In addition, more nutrient information presented as part of the symbol seemed to close the comprehension gap between consumers with higher and lower levels of education.
Another presentation from the director of the Rudd Center at Yale University supported traffic light-type symbols, based on past research, and opposed the involvement of the food industry in the development of front-of-pack symbols. A New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene representative gave information on its experience with policies and initiatives that encouraged industry reformulation of food products.
The report from this phase of work, which is expected to be released in the fall of 2011, will make recommendations on the format for the front-of-pack symbol. The committee's phase I report, released two weeks ago, recommended that front-of-pack symbols declare calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium in foods.
IDFA will provide comments to IOM on front-of-pack labeling related to dairy products. Members with questions or who would like to be involved in developing IDFA's comments may contact Michelle Matto, IDFA's consultant on nutrition and regulatory affairs, at firstname.lastname@example.org.